The last time Jaguar unveiled a two-seater sports car was 52 years ago, in Geneva. It was lunchtime on March 15 1961 when Sir William Lyons pulled the wraps off the E-Type, which had been designed by aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer using a slide rule, a book of logarithmic tables, some pencils and some paper. When Enzo Ferrari saw it, he said it was the most beautiful car in the world; when Frank Sinatra saw it, he is reputed to have said, “I want that car and I want it now....”
The legendary “E” was the Swinging Sixties on wheels – a long-bonneted beauty that was perfectly encapsulated by the American automotive journalist Henry Manney when he described it as “the greatest crumpet-catcher known to man”.
Any successor would have quite a bit to live up to. No wonder, then, that it’s taken Jaguar more than half a century to reach the next letter in the alphabet – but, at last, the F-Type has arrived. And it couldn’t have done so at a better moment: the marque is on a global roll with a range of models that extends from its XJ super saloons to the sleek and practical XF Sportbrake and the high-performance XK models.
But ever since the last E-type left the line in 1974, there’s been something missing – a version of the rorty, shapely, open-topped two-seater with which Jaguar made its name. That’s why the F-Type is so important.
Of course, the automotive world has moved on a bit in five decades. The present design director, Ian Callum, went through quite a few pencils to create the F-Type’s basic shape. Then he and his 40-strong team took four years and half a million computer drawings to bring the E-Type’s spiritual successor to production.
The result is a car made using Jaguar’s class-leading “architecture” that eschews heavy, rust-prone steel in favour of glued and riveted aluminium – 50 per cent of which is said to be recycled – to create a body that is the stiffest convertible in the Jaguar line-up, yet which weighs just 260kg.
Into that it has dropped a range of supercharged engines: a 340PS, three-litre V6 for the entry-level F-Type; a 380PS version for the S model; and a hairy, 495PS V8 for the range topper. There’s an eight-speed, quickshift transmission to get the power down and the weight distribution is an almost perfect 50:50 balance, front and rear.
Add in some giant brakes and (on the S and V8-S models) Jaguar’s “Adaptive Dynamics” suspension system, and you’re left with a list of ingredients that should add up to one thing: a pure driver’s car.
To demonstrate it’s intention to make a sports car for the sort of people who will drive it like one (the marque is boldly going head-to-head here with the likes of the Porsche 911 and the Aston Martin V8 Vantage), Jaguar chose to launch the F-Type in northern Spain on a combination of twisting mountain passes, fast, sweeping B roads and, just to ram the point home, the Navarra race circuit.
The road-test sessions were initially tackled in the entry-level V6 model (from £58,500), which seemed to me, before I’d driven its punchier stablemates, to be potent enough to satisfy most enthusiastic drivers. An exceptionally quick steering rack (fitted across the range) makes switchbacks a delight and, under “normal” use in automatic mode, the car is as docile, light and easy as anyone could ask for.
On the circuit, however, the more powerful S revealed its even greater sporting credentials, especially when using the now de rigueur “loony button” – in this case an illuminated, chequered flag switch on the jet-fighter-style console.
Flicking it invokes what Jaguar calls Dynamic Mode, sharpening throttle response, increasing steering weight for greater feel, allowing the engine to rev more freely and speeding-up gear changes, which can now be performed manually by the (again, as is the fashion) steering-wheel mounted, race-car-esque paddle shifters.
The setting also allows a greater level of rear-wheel slip before the electronic stability control systems intervene to prevent the driver getting into trouble through an excess of enthusiasm over ability – and, of course, it opens up a set of valves to magnify the already healthy growl from the exhaust system. But if you don’t want all this at once, each feature can be individually selected through a “Configurable Dynamics” option on the dashboard’s touch-screen control panel.
There were two aspects of the car that stood out on the circuit: the immense rigidity of the aluminium underpinnings and the fact that the F-Type really is a beautifully balanced machine that grips and steers with true aplomb.
Indeed, the V6-S (from £67,500) is probably the best overall car of the three, although the enticing prospect of having 495PS under your right foot in the 186mph V8-S (from £79,950) is expected to prove an irresistible draw to most F-Type early adopters. The car is undoubtedly more brutal, sounds magnificent and is a drag racer’s dream – but it would take an exceptional driver to prove that it has significant edge over its smaller-engined sibling.
Almost more important, however, is what the F-Type is going to do for Jaguar. A couple of years ago, when I interviewed Callum for this magazine about his wish to take the marque away from the trilby-and-camel-coat image it had become lumbered with during the 1990s, he told me that it was his ambition to “get posters of Jags back on teenagers’ bedroom walls in the way that they were 40 or 50 years ago”.
With the F-Type, it looks as though he might well have realised his ambition.